The End of Childhood?

The idea that kids are becoming adults more quickly today is an interesting one. The first time I encountered it was in an essay by the late Neil Postman, who argued that childhood was a result of the move to a print-oriented culture in the 18th Century. His argument went something like this: childhood is a social construct, not a biological one. Indeed, there was no notion of a prolonged childhood (say between birth and 17) until widespread printing made literacy a necessary social skill. Children were technically considered grown as soon as they acquired language skills. So the idea of childhood--of a special time in a person's life in which he or she is to be sheltered and nourished--is only about 200 years old.

The task of making children fully literate takes time, of course. One can speak effectively years before one can read well and write well. So when reading and writing became co-terminus with being a fully-formed person, childhood necessarily expanded, or, I should say, the idea of childhood took root. It was in the 18th century that first child-centered educational efforts took place.

In short, childhood was created to mirror the length of time it took to fully educate a young person. After all, we still tend to think of high school graduation as the formal entry into adulthood. But here's the thing: the time it takes to be conversant in our increasingly dominant audio-visual communications medium is far less than it is takes to become competently literate. (Thnk txt msging). Thus, as Postman predicted, childhood has begun to shrink. It may not vanish altogether, but our culture has already begun to reflect certain trends.

Today's preteens no longer are interested in dolls, toy cars, etc. They want Ipods, cell phones, computers and thus mimic the behavior of their elders. Toys-R-Us is going bankrupt, but video game manufacturers have target markets that are not so demographically distinct for children and adults (say between the ages of eight and 45 for basically the same product). Thus the entire social construct known as childhood may be undergoing a profound reshaping. I would say, at best, childhood ends at about 8 or 9 years of age now.


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